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Headlong, Backwards and Forwards:
An Interview with Simon Ings

Interview by David Mathew
Simon Ings
Simon Ings
Novels by Simon Ings include Hothead, Hotwire and Headlong, and The City of the Iron Fish.

ISFDB Bibliography

The City of the Iron Fish
Headlong, Simon Ings's fourth novel, was published recently to good reviews. Merging hard SF with surrealism, and with tropes of an espionage thriller, it tells the story of a man who, while working on the Moon, was given new ranges to his natural senses, and who has now been stripped of them. The man must investigate the death of his wife, while being pursued by both the police and the killers, and while coming to terms with his devolution to a regular human being. Continuing Ings's theme of memory-and-mind modification (explored in the highly-praised debut, Hothead, and in Hotwire, the third novel), Headlong nevertheless marks a change in fictional direction:

"The genre is more divided against itself than it is against other genres, and other forms of publishing, and I feel that with Headlong, which is really more of a crime book than a science fiction book, I was becoming involved with a process which is taking me out of science fiction and into a weird area occupied by people like Rupert Thomson, Iain Banks and Douglas Copeland. And others: people who have never written science fiction, and they're never going to write science fiction; but by God, they've read it. They've learnt it and they've done the job properly. We're not talking about mainstream writers who are doing SF on the cheap -- because they think it's easy -- we're not talking about the Edwina Curries of this world. It just seems as though if you haven't got the tools of science fiction, it's getting increasingly hard to write about what's going on at the moment..."

Ings continues, "I'm probably not going to be published as science fiction in the future. For example, I'm not particularly interested, right now, in cosmological SF, which Steve Baxter keys into -- and Benford and Bear. That's High Church. If you haven't got a degree in Physics, why are you reading my book? But the public has a right to be ignorant!" This last sentence might be useful to generalize the feelings of the protagonists in his best novels (and even, to a lesser extent, in The City of the Iron Fish, the less well-received second novel, written "in hiding, on the run from my reputation as a cyberpunk writer, in Bradford, living on mung beans"). In these books, people get into trouble because of their mental adaptations, or their skills. If they were "ordinary" people, there would be no friction, no novel.

"But I'm not Literary Fiction either, because the term 'Literary Fiction' is useless," Ings says. "What does it mean? They try to cram all sorts of other genres together; and they tell this big lie, which is that people spend all their time falling in and out of love with each other. But people spend most time, effort and money falling in and out of love with objects -- with machines that they perceive as extensions of themselves. We spend very little time falling in and out of love with each other -- and I'm not sure that's a very healthy situation, but it's the one we're in. People spend more effort in developing their gadgets than they do their emotional lives...

"That's probably what led me to cyberpunk in the first place, because the great thing about cyberpunk is not what it invents, but what it doesn't invent. The great thing about Gibson is that he doesn't invent a mysterious company to make his strange robotic spiders; he just says it was a Seiko Spider, and suddenly it's in your face, it's in your world. Those things become a language that everyone can understand. The reason those books seem so all-encompassing is they admit the existence of a real world. Whereas if you're trying to invent everything from the start, it's so difficult to write about people. With the best will in the world, you drown in information. That's why the future in Headlong is so briefly sketched; it's like those late films of Hitchcock, where he'd just do a painted flat. Completely artificial and he didn't care. I've done something similar: this is the future, global warming, put up with it! Let's get on with the real subject. I think if I was to write Headlong now, I'd set it in the present day, but I'm not displeased with it."

For getting him involved with science fiction in the first place Ings has "the local library to thank: Petersfield Library, whose staff, in their wisdom, decided that science fiction was children's literature. Presumably, not only because of the covers, but because, in the 70s, the books were nice and short: 45-50,000 words long. So I read New Worlds when I was a child, and it was perfect. Also, I have a brother who is 12 years older than me, and I inherited his entire science fiction collection. I fell in love with Wyndham and that sort of science fiction: set in the present day. I can now set things in the present day because science has caught up; it fits comfortably into medical thriller territory. The calm, Civil Service style of John Wyndham, describing the most astonishing, cataclysmic events which change everything. It was Wyndham, long before Ballard, who said that we should welcome the catastrophe...

"As a writer I don't do 'sense-of-wonder'. There are little hints of it, but I don't do what science fiction is so good at doing: which is awe and wonder at the scale of things. Usually you have devices that would seem to take you to wild and wonderful places, but it all gets stuck in first gear. You're in the supercar but you don't know how to work it; you're probably going to wrap it around a tree. By about page 50 I know I'm going to wrap it around a tree, and how am I going to crawl from the wreckage afterwards? Hothead is the one, perhaps, that did have a sense of wonder; this was how I came to work with a director, Simon Pummell, with whom I did a few short films. He fell in love with my meat trees. And I was already thinking about stripping things back so that somebody could put a 13-amp plug in their head. We ended up doing a 30-minute cyberpunk thriller, Rose Red, which got made. It then got expanded into a feature film, which we wrote, which went into development, which we actually got paid for, but never got made -- for various budgetary considerations, and because, basically, it was terrible...

"One of the reasons it didn't work, and why no cyberspace fiction ever works, is that you can't film cyberspace. If it's going to be a heavenly place, a transcendent place, then it's certainly going to have to transcend 35mm film! The best you'll ever be able to do is shine a bright light into the camera and hope that the audience have some imagination. It's much easier to do it in fiction. Which is ironic, considering the fatal fascination it's had for filmmakers over the last 10 years. People have joyously leapt off the cliff, like so many lemmings. The better the film technology gets, the worse the films seem to get -- again, ironically enough. There's probably a lot to be said for keeping things simple; for encouraging the imagination, and not showing everything there is to be shown..."

Copyright © 2000 by David Mathew

David Mathew studied English at university, worked as a teacher in Cairo and Gdansk, and is now a full-time writer and journalist. He is working on a biography of Ramsey Campbell and has recently completed a novel. He is also co-designing a game show.

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